In Israel's general elections of May 17, opposition Labor leader Ehud Barak was elected prime minister with 56 percent of the vote. Both Barah and ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu courted the sizable Russian immigrant community.
Israel has 4.2 million registered voters; 14 percent were born in Russia. Political television ads carried Russian subtitles and often featured Russian immigrants. The Russian community has traditionally voted with the Israeli right and in the parliamentary elections in 1996, 73 percent voted for Netanyahu. In the May 17 election, just over half voted for Barak, which gave him the edge over Netanyahu.
Television ads boosted the popularity of Barak among Russian immigrants, despite repeated visits to Russia by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon. The Russian immigrants have their own party, Israel Ba'Aliya, led by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident. The Ba'Aliya party got seven seats in the 120-member Knesset in 1996, but seems to have fallen out of favor with newcomers, so-called Olim. Barak is expected to give the Interior Minister portfolio, which controls who can immigrate to Israel and with what rights, to Sharansky.
In January and February, 3,347 people emigrated from Russia to Israel, up from 1,676 in the same two months in 1998. Russians in Israel say they are discriminated against by police and are called Mafioso or "Rasputin."
Aryeh Dean Cohen, "In Neveh Ya'acov, immigrants focus on security," Jerusalem Post, May 18, 1999. Aryeh Dean Cohen, "Russian immigrants believe PM caves in to haredim" Jerusalem Post, May 12, 1999. Lee Hockstader, "Israeli Candidates Court Russian Bloc," Washington Post, May 7, 1999.